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Harper's New 'Anti-Terrorism' Bill Will Create a Climate of Self-Censorship

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The Harper government's newly introduced "anti-terrorism" legislature, Bill C-51, has been roundly condemned as an assault on privacy and free speech -- and rightly so.

Citizen groups, newspaper editorials and opposition politicans have criticized the bill -- which would allow for the removal of "terrorist propaganda" from the Internet, give law enforcement more powers and expand no-fly-list provisions -- as too broad and over-reaching.

Besides hunting down would-be terrorists, the new laws could be used to stifle dissent, remove due process and lead to the creation of a secret police force, critics say. In a supposedly enlightened and democratic country such as Canada, these would be unwelcome developments to say the least.

But there is a deeper cost to eroding privacy than just the spurring of undesirable changes in external entities such as courts and communications networks. Also at stake is the very freedom of Canadians to internally determine who they are and want to be.

This is because privacy, at its heart, is the real and virtual space in which people shape and evolve their identities. By constraining thought and action through measures such as C-51, a government can chip away at each individual's fundamental freedom to do just that.

Surveillance or even the specter of it can cause people to act differently than they normally would -- in most cases, more conservatively, guardedly, and in accordance with laws or established social mores.

A 2005 British Home Office study of London's pervasive security cameras, for example, found significant reductions in premeditated crimes such as car theft in most places where Big Brother's eyes were watching.

Similarly, a 2008 study on the effects of cameras in Swedish soccer stadiums found unruly behaviour to be two-thirds lower when they were present than when they weren't.

These can be considered societally positive examples for the most part, but the laws in question are relative. Other research has found more subtle and troubling changes occur in situations that aren't as well defined.

A 2011 Australian study, for example, found that people were more likely to condemn the socially "bad" behaviour of others if they felt they were being watched. When participants were presented scenarios accompanied by a picture of a pair of eyes, they reported actions as less morally acceptable than those who saw an image of flowers.

That "bad" behaviour is subjective and dependent on the values cultivated in each country and culture. It is entirely normal in many European countries, for example, for media to run nude images of people, yet in South Korea the practice is essentially forbidden.

Surveillance can also quickly go from discouraging undesirable behaviour to actively cultivating fear. Iran's Green Movement in 2009 and 2010 is a good example. Social media initially enabled protestors to coalesce and organize, but authorities eventually turned Facebook and Twitter against them.

"They were able to convincingly convey that all of the communications were being monitored," says Ron Diebert, a University of Toronto professor and founder of Internet surveillance watchdog Citizen Lab. "The Iranian movement quickly disaggregated into splinter cells and people worried about who was talking to who."

Omnipresent surveillance conjures images of oppressive regimes and hearkens back to what we now consider to be less enlightened times.

In her book Stasiland, Iron Curtain chronicler Anna Funder recalls how life under the watchful eye of the secret police in East Berlin during the Cold War was stifling and oppressive.

"Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or the other of you could be one of them," she writes. "Everyone suspected everyone else and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence."

The effects, great or small, can range from individuals omitting certain flaws or features from their online networking or dating profiles to entire countries outlawing certain modes of thought.

The knowledge or even suspicion that we're being watched pushes us further from freedom in thought and action.

On one hand that's good because it preserves the social order, but on the other hand it can significantly change our individual identities.

"Left unchecked, surveillance can create a climate of self-censorship," Deibert says. "If they know they're being watched and all of their activities are being monitored, people tend to be more conservative. That's something we have to be conscientious of."

Unfortunately in Canada, the words "conservative" and "liberal" are politicized because they happen to be the names of two major political parties. But we musn't forget that "liberal" is also a synonym for "free."

In that sense, efforts to create a more conservative society -- rather than a more liberal one -- through the erosion of privacy and the subsequent censoring of thought and action must be vigorously opposed. Our very identities depend on it.

Peter Nowak is the author of the new book Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species, available now.

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